Revisiting ‘The Ghost from the Grand Banks’: Arthur C Clarke’s Titanic novel of 1990

The Ghost from the Grand Banks - many covers, one story

Writing the Foreword to the book on ‘Communicating Disasters‘ that I co-edited in 2007, Sir Arthur C Clarke said: “I was born five years after the biggest maritime disaster the world had known: the sinking of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic while on her maiden voyage. My home town Minehead, in Somerset, was not more than a couple of hundred kilometres from Southampton, from where the Titanic set off. All my life, I have been intrigued by the Titanic disaster.”

The Titanic — whose wreck not discovered at the time — made a cameo appearance in his 1976 novel, Imperial Earth. For the Quincentennial of the United States, the wreck is raised and carried to New York.

But he continued to be haunted by the mighty ship (as did, and do, many others). He finally had to write a whole novel to exorcise it from his mind.

One day in early 1989, Sir Arthur asked me: “Does ‘Ghost from the Grand Banks’ mean anything to you?”

It didn’t — but that wasn’t surprising as I’d been raised on the other side of the planet, in an entirely different generation.

The Grand Banks of Newfoundland are a group of underwater plateaus southeast of Newfoundland on the North American continental shelf. The cold Labrador Current mixes with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream here — making it one of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

It is also close to where the Titanic sank on the night of 14/15 April 1912, and has served as the launching point of various shipwreck expeditions.

That heralded the genesis of an entirely new Arthur C Clarke novel. For me, it was the beginning of an exhilarating journey across space and time, supporting the creative process of one of the finest science fiction writers of the 20th Century.

I was working as Sir Arthur’s research assistant at the time, two years into my fascinating association with the late author (which lasted 21 years).

Over the next few months, I was to research and/or cross-check all sorts of records, data and other nuggets of information, which Sir Arthur — the master weaver of narratives — then worked into an entirely new novel.

The novel, published in late 1990 as The Ghost from the Grand Banks, was an ocean-based thriller set in the (then) near future. It revolved around rival British-American and Japanese teams trying to raise the legendary ship’s wreck in time for the centenary in 2012. Both teams mobilise mega-bucks and cutting edge technology: while one team relies on 50 billion little glass balls, the other’s ambitious plan involves making the world’s largest ice cube…

Two weeks before the centenary of the Titanic‘s maiden voyage – and its tragic sinking – I re-read the novel. On the information society front, at least, I found that The Ghost from the Grand Banks stands up remarkably well in 2012.

Living as we do at the time when his story culminated, we can now compare Sir Arthur’s ‘extrapolations of the future’ – he carefully avoided labelling any of his ideas as ‘predictions’ – with what has become our reality.

I then wrote an essay comparing his imagined world of 2012 with what we are living and experiencing now. It has just been published by Arthur C Clarke’s World of 2012: Insights from his Titanic Novel